Great, Inflation Is Ruining Thanksgiving Dinner, Too

Anna Helhoski
By Anna Helhoski 
Edited by Laura McMullen

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This Thanksgiving, it’s not just the pandemic or post-election political tensions threatening to ruin your family dinner — it’s also inflation. Oh, and the ongoing avian flu that has killed more than 7 million turkeys nationwide this year.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, which tracks food prices, said in a news release that consumers could face record high prices for Thanksgiving meals this year.

Food prices in general have been increasing: The index for groceries — which represents changes in consumer prices — was up 12.4% over a one-year period as of October 2022, according to the latest Consumer Price Index data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the data show price increases for food and other goods are starting to slow down, consumers can still expect high prices this Thanksgiving.

As with all price jumps, some consumers will have a more difficult time handling the higher costs than others. “These are very high price increases, but they're really impacting low-income families the most,” says David Ortega, associate professor in the department of agricultural, food and resource economics at Michigan State University.

Meanwhile, higher-income consumers who padded their savings during the early days of the pandemic have been increasing their spending on food. The rising demand from those consumers has elevated prices at the supermarket, Ortega says.

In other words, there are lots of reasons why you’ll pay more to get food on the table this year.

Turkeys are available but pricier

The star of the meal is traditionally the humble turkey. You may see turkeys for sale that are smaller than usual, because commercial farms impacted by the highly virulent HPAI, or avian flu, are bringing younger turkeys to market, according to the Farm Bureau. (It’s worth noting in this era of virus awareness that HPAI does not usually affect humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Despite the avian flu, there's no shortage of turkeys, according to Beth Breeding, vice president of communications and marketing for the National Turkey Federation.

“If a shopper is looking for a turkey, they're going to be able to find one this Thanksgiving,” Breeding says. “We have no concerns about that whatsoever.”

But those turkeys will be more expensive than usual, partially due to the effects of the avian flu, but primarily because of higher supply costs for feed, fuel, fertilizer and labor. Overall production costs have increased by nearly 18% from 2021 to 2022, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

In September, the highest retail prices for boneless, skinless turkey breast hit a record of $6.70 per pound, which is 112% higher than at the same time in the previous year, according to the Farm Bureau. The price is well above the previous record high of $5.88 per pound in November 2015, during another avian flu outbreak.

Keep in mind that the average price of whole turkeys is lower than those record highs, and cost varies by region and type. The average cost of a whole young fresh turkey ranges from $1.80 to $2.17 per pound, according to the USDA's weekly turkey report for Nov. 11. Frozen turkeys are typically cheaper than fresh, and hens are less expensive than toms.

“There’s no doubt that things are going to cost more this holiday — that the whole meal will cost more — but there are still really good deals available on turkey and as far as value,” Breeding says.

Ortega recommends that consumers shop around since supermarkets will offer promotions and deals to get customers in the door.

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You’ll lay down more green for veggies

As you might expect, you’ll pay more for corn, green beans, potatoes and squashes this year than in the past. The Consumer Price Index shows a 9.2% year-over-year increase in the index for fresh vegetables — representing price changes — as of September 2022.

Many variables are raising prices, including supply-chain snags, high transportation costs and climate events impacting agriculture.

Domestically and abroad, climate changes have affected agriculture, Ortega says. California, for example, is the No. 1 state for agricultural production, according to the USDA. But drought and extreme heat have made it more difficult for crops to survive there, Ortega says.

Weather changes impact production, yields and productivity, he says, and those effects increase the price of food. The industry also has higher energy and transportation costs due to high oil and gas prices.

The wheat supply chain is still strained

Higher costs of wheat will impact the cost of a crucial ingredient for Thanksgiving meal staples like rolls, stuffing and pie crust: flour.

The cost-per-pound of flour has risen 35% year-over-year as of October 2022, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

As with vegetables, compounding factors are increasing price, Ortega says. Wheat costs have also been affected by the war in Ukraine, which is known as the breadbasket of Europe for good reason: It’s a major supplier of grain, wheat and sunflower oil for the world. When combined with Russia, the two countries produce 13% of the world’s grain, according to Our World in Data, a project of the University of Oxford and the Global Change Data Lab.

For most of the year, Russia prevented all exports of grain out of the Black Sea, until the United Nations brokered a grain deal that allowed exports to resume. That deal is set to expire in March 2023.

“Those commodity prices have come down substantially since, but it takes time for these decreased costs to make their way down to the grocery store,” Ortega says.

Don’t forget higher dairy prices, too

Butter, cream, milk and other dairy products that are central to cooking a traditional Thanksgiving meal are also expected to remain more expensive this year, according to BLS data.

Finally, to top off your dessert, the price of canned whipped cream canisters has long been elevated due to a yearslong nitrous oxide shortage. This year it’s been made worse by the conflict in Ukraine. Why? Ammonium nitrate and natural gas are refined to create nitrous oxide, both of which are heavily produced in Russia and Ukraine.

Even with higher-than-usual prices in every aisle, comparison shopping can still help — if you have the fortitude to balance it and make a Thanksgiving dinner. If all else fails, it could be cheaper to call off cooking and eat out instead.

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